Opinion

UP school van tragedy reflects how India’s children go to class – and parents must share the blame

It’s a common sight across the country: children crammed like sardines into small vans or autorickshaws, in flagrant violation of regulations.

A school van ran into an express train in Uttar Pradesh’s Kushinagar on April 26, leaving 13 children dead and their families bereft. Every year, scores of schoolchildren are killed in road accidents on their way to school.

Two weeks ago, 30 people, including 27 schoolchildren, were killed in Himachal Pradesh when the bus ferrying them home drove off a mountain road. The same day as the Kushinagar accident, a seven-year-old schoolgirl in Delhi was killed and several of her companions seriously injured when their van crashed into a truck.

Such incidents are unexceptional, with reports of similar accidents from every part of the country.

India has among the highest incidence of fatalities linked to road accidents. Poor driving skills, non-observance of road rules, bad road conditions, low-safety vehicles, overcrowding, drunk driving are all factors. According to data, an average of 45 children under the age of 18 are killed in road accidents every day. There is no information about how many of these accidents involve school transport.

What this data also does not tell us is whether the incidence of child fatalities in road accidents is linked to the changing ways in which children go to school.

Schoolchildren crammed like sardines into small vans or autorickshaws, their bags piled on roof-racks or hung from the sides, is an everyday sight in India. It was not always so. Especially not in small towns or rural areas like Dudahi, where the 13 children were killed.

Even before the Right to Education Act of 2009 mandated that all children must be served by a neighbourhood primary school, most children walked to primary school – the first small steps towards being independent, adventurous and responsible for themselves. For some children, getting to school was a daily feat. There are still places in India, albeit very few, where children have to ford a river or climb down steep mountains to get to school. The Right to Education norm of a school within a one-kilometre radius was meant to ensure universal access, based on the understanding that it was the distance a small child could walk unescorted.

The growth in the use of motorised transport to get to school, particularly primary school, is linked to the growth in private school enrolment and, to a lesser extent, admissions to selective state schools. In rural areas with competition among private schools, transport is often offered as an incentive to draw in students from relatively far afield.

Mishrauli, the village in Kushinagar whose gram pradhan lost her three children in Thursday’s accident, has a government primary school. The private school her children attended, Divine Mission School in Dudahi, is perhaps just a couple of kilometers away. But the seven-seater vehicle that was their “school bus” collected 17 children from surrounding villages, which would have made their journey to school rather longer than it should have been.

There are no large-scale studies of how children in India travel to school. But one study in Hyderabad found that while most children (57%) still walked to school, a larger share of those in private schools (41%) used motorised transport as compared to those in government schools (24%).

'Government policy now effectively supports children being driven to distant schools in overcrowded vehicles instead of them just walking to a neighbourhood school with their siblings and friends.' Photo credit: Anjali Mody
'Government policy now effectively supports children being driven to distant schools in overcrowded vehicles instead of them just walking to a neighbourhood school with their siblings and friends.' Photo credit: Anjali Mody

Flouting norms

From time to time, following wide media coverage of fatal accidents such as the one in Kushinagar, the Supreme Court, state governments or school boards have issued safety guidelines for school transport. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has also published a manual on safety and security of schoolchildren which has a section on safe transport. But these guidelines are observed more in the breach.

With the exception perhaps of those that serve a socially powerful and well-heeled constituency, schools in India are unconcerned about the risks their students take everyday. Most schools that provide transport are looking at pricing; schools that do not provide transport, including the central government-run Kendriya Vidyalayas, maintain that it is the parents’ responsibility.

In cases like Kushinagar and Delhi, it is easy to point fingers at the government, police and civil administration for the lack of regulation and for failing to act against obvious violations – unregulated private schools, illegal licence mafias, overcrowded vehicles on roads, dangerous drivers. But the question that always goes unasked in the wake of devastating tragedy is, “What about parents?” Why do parents, when they make choices about schools for their children, not factor in basic safety?

In Delhi, parents rather improbably claimed not to have known that the van carried more than double the number it was designed for. The driver had a litany of prior complaints against him and had been fined for various traffic violations. He took a route – which included driving on the wrong side of the road – that the police said many in the neighbourhood took. Parents admitting that they knew any of this would mean they shared responsibility for what happened.

The tragic irony of these deaths is that the children were travelling to what their parents considered better schools than those in their neighbourhood. The question that must be asked is, what is this education that starts with ignoring sensible regulations and breaking the law?

In all the talk of education reform and scalable good practices, the one important question that has been ignored is how children get to school. The Right to Education neighbourhood school norm, which effectively linked a community to its primary school, was an ideal worth fighting for. But by the time it came along in 2010, the trend in favour of private schools was already set, ironically aided by the Right to Education Act, which stipulates that 25% seats in private school should go to “economically weaker sections” and be paid for by the government.

Governments in many states as also the central government are looking to rationalise public education by closing down schools with low enrolment and providing transport or a transport allowance to get children to schools further away. Government policy now effectively supports children being driven to distant schools in overcrowded buses, vans, autorickshaws and “jugaads”, instead of them just walking to a neighbourhood school with their siblings and friends.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.